Thursday, September 08, 2005

4. Hermeneutics. Herman Who? That is exactly what I thought when I saw that word for the first time. The art of interpreting scripture was, for me, not an art at all. In a nutshell, it was getting out the transparency and turning on the overhead projector, and beginning to meticulously copy some one else's way of interpetting the text. This worked for a while. But, as all things handed down, discrepancies and inconsistencies began to surface.
I am deeply indebted to Leonard Allens writings, specifically the Cruciform Church for broadening my horizons in this area. He is a master at dissecting our movement and highlighting the cultural influences that shaped the COC hermeneutic.
Briefly, here is a concept that has a lot of mileage to it. Mainly, this applies to narratives, but can equally apply to all forms of literature. It is a critical question to ask when interpreting the text.

Is it a Prototype or Archetype?

What do I mean by that? Let me explain. To use another example from cars, when Ford made a Mustang back in 75, it had certain identifiable characteristics that distinguished it from all other Fords. It was unique. However, the 2004 Mustang looks very different from the 75 Mustang. It is identifiable as a Mustang, but it is not identical to the 75 Mustang. The Mustang Model is called a prototype. It has certain identifiable characteristics that remain consistent through out time, but the shape, look, size and color changes. It is still a Mustang, but it is different from other Mustangs.

An Archetype, would be like a blue print for a house. It never changes and no matter what year or place you build, the house will always look the same. And to change anything in the blueprints is to distort or violate the architect's design and intentions. A prototype is fluid, an archetype is concrete and static.

When reading the text of scripture, it is imperative that we distinguish between prototype and archetype. In our movement, the book of Acts has served as an Archetype, laying out eternal patterns to be mimicked right down to the details in how we do church. (Part of this tendency in our movement is tied to legalism which makes one read the text hypercritically, looking for commands in every passage so as to not miss one, which would of course leave you in a state of uncertainty about your salvation.) In an effort to "crack the code" and uncover all the "hidden commands" (we call these examples and necessary inferences) we created a hermeneutic to help us figure out what parts of the pattern are binding, and which ones are not. We get very selective in this process by the way. Acts 20:7 has long served as a "pattern" for us in the Lords Supper. But what about the other details of this so called archetypal example: the upper room, the night time preaching, the guy falling out the window. (Not to mention the fact that what we do on Sunday morning comes no where close to the first century practice of "breaking bread") This is a good example of how the "pattern theology" breaks down and is unable to supply a full proof method of interpretation. As a result of this Archetype approach to scripture we have read into the examples and patterns of scripture commands that were never there.

What if the book of Acts is a prototype and not an archetype? What if it is descriptive (just describing what they did) and not prescriptive (prescribing to us every detail of church practice to copy and mimic.) In fact, what if we are not to mimic the pattern per se, but creatively come up with ways to exercise the underlying principles of the text, developing ways to live so that we too experience "all things in common" and " many people added to the Lord." To think that we can copy some form or structure, thereby making us arrive at the same results is ridiculous. What if we are not supposed to copy the form, but copy the spirit and function of what they did?
I am at the point now that I do not look to the New Testament for ancient forms and practices in order to crack some sort of code so that I can discover the hidden formula of how to do church successfully. Those texts describe people, circumstances and practices that are inbedded in another culture and context. Not only that, they are tied to a culture and context that is 2000 years old!

God knows how to communicate. Reading the Bible is not like looking at one of those pictures in the back of that kid magazine "Highlights"that has 17 objects hidden in the landscape, and it is your job to try and find all those missing pieces. The things that matter most to God are clear. As some would say, the Plain thing is the Main thing, and the Main thing is the Plain thing. If it was important for us to take the Lords Supper on Sundays only, God would communicate this to us in no uncertain terms, just like he communicated to the Israelites about the special days and feasts in Leviticus 23. We do not have to guess or piece together some elaborate stream of texts to decipher what God wants. He will tell us what he wants.

This is not to say that we do not need to engage in careful exegesis or thoughtful reflection about what the word is actually teaching. Narrative, Poetry, Letter and all the other forms of literature in the Bible deserve to be engaged with their proper interpretive tools. I also do not want to leave the impression that the only way God teaches us is through clear commandments. Narrative is a powerful event which instructs, forms identity, inspires, subverts, challenges and critiques our "world". I am merely implying that we need to realize that God knows how to make a big deal about something. And we do not need to make a big deal about something that God does not.

We all come to the text with baggage and culturally conditioned lenses. There will always be bias and prejudice when we read scripture. But I believe, the nature of God can be discerned. I believe the Cross and Resurrection are packed with principles for spiritual formation. I belief the Life of Jesus is a powerful mentoring tool in living a life faithful to God. I believe God is more concerned about forming us into the image of Christ than he is about things that he has not explicitly told us are important to him or that he has not explicitly commanded us to do.

This topic has a plethora of directions and topics, I should stop before I start rambling. And, I need to take a shower and go to work too!

If you are digging what I am saying, let me suggest a few books. Cruciformity: Pauls Narrative Spirituality of the Cross The Moral Vision of the New Testament:Community, Cross and new Creation The Sermon as Symphony: Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible


B. said...

How does "covenant theology" work into hermeneutics?

Ever-increasingly (like the glory of God rising up in us), my understanding of the fact that God's covenant is body-based over text-based is screaming from the text itself, awakening the Spirit Himself within me-- which I believe is God's plan and purpose.

Jeremiah 31-33-- the promise that he would place the word in our hearts and minds and forgive our sins.

Reflected in New Testament Theology in Hebrews 8-10

First issued in the flesh in the Christ (Psalm 40) when he presented himself for the will of God.

We brothers who follow Him and become the Body of Him, we contain the glory, the Spirit, and carry out the will of God in these bodies.

loren said...

Hi Planter,

Just surfing by, saw the word 'hermeneutics' and I was hooked (Gosh, who wouldn't be?)

Actually, I did want to mention something about hermenutics.

As I'm sure you know, the Bible foretells the church of the end times. There will be two sides to this church. One side will be full of destructive heresies. The other will fulfill the church's calling and destiny in the world. And the two may be distinguished by their hermeneutics.

The bad side of the end time church will interpret the Scriptures through the grid of 'self', having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.

The good side will have a hermeneutic called 'the knowledge of the Son of God', which is a very Christ-centered focus (Eph 4:13).

So essentially, there will be two basic and opposing mind sets. You can see this same basic division in the parable of the ten virgins, for example. At the end of that parable the Lord returns, and this is how he finds the church of the last days.

I've studied both sides since 1982. When the post-modern movement started I thought they were going to drift toward the Christ-centered hermeneutic, but now they seem to be drifting away. Any thoughts on that?